Even as we have celebrated the specialness of this anniversary year and the accomplishments it has brought in its wake, we cannot escape the reality that our nation has continued to suffer anxiety about the economy. It is fair to ask what impact this situation is having on our students and benefactors—indeed, on us as individuals as well as on our university. We will, of course, watch economic developments closely and do all that we can to ensure Emory’s fiscal health and continued progress. And through our processes of shared governance and our attention to basic principles, we are working to maintain our commitments as an ethically engaged community.
It is fitting that in the face of economic uncertainty and social challenges, an anniversary invites us to look back, to reflect on the journey that has brought us here, and to recall the highs and lows along the way. However, it is also fitting that in this anniversary year at Emory, we remember the vows and principles that have guided us, and we revitalize those principles and vows for the chapter ahead. Last year encouraged us to look ahead—to consider that perhaps Robert Browning was right when he said that “the best is yet to be.”
With this in mind, it is possible to see the past year as a help in channeling our mental and physical energies in the directions they should be going in 2012 and beyond, as well as inviting us to examine more closely the ways in which our actions and rhetoric are aligned with each other and with our vision. In particular, the past year beckoned us to embrace a more vital integrity as an institution.
We put our anniversary year to good use by remembering that again and again in our past, Emory has exercised integrity in wrestling with what it means to be a great and a good university in a part of our country that, for various reasons, has struggled to build great universities. Emory, as a community, has grappled with the legacy, purpose, and future of what it means to be a liberal arts university, with excellent and powerful professional and graduate schools, seeking to serve the greater good of humanity.
Emory dealt with these legacies in the 1950s and 1960s, when the question arose whether to desegregate. Emory dealt with these legacies again in the 1980s, when the question arose whether to divest in companies doing business in South Africa, a question that resurfaced more recently with respect to Darfur. Emory delved into these legacies in the 1990s, when questions arose about the treatment of members of our community regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity; and later, when questions arose about whether we could discuss the racial history of Emory honestly and openly; and again, when questions surfaced about merchandise made around the world. In each instance, the Emory community found a way to put everything on the table, look at the facts, and come to conclusions that made Emory better and stronger, more vibrant and excellent. Along the way, the community also established processes from which we continue to benefit.
The past calendar year began with the trustees of Emory issuing a statement of regret about Emory’s entwinement with the institution of slavery in the college’s early years. This statement grew out of conversations initiated by the President’s Commission on Race and Ethnicity, and the statement preceded by just a few weeks our hosting a national conference to examine the relationship of universities and slavery. The conference culminated in a powerful moment of remembrance at Old Church in Oxford, when descendants of Emory slaveholders and descendants of the slaves they owned came together to tell stories of hardship and separation, of recognition and repatriation, of disappointment and hope. In the end, the community gathered in Old Church embodied the kind of community Emory aspires to be—deeply engaged as an ethical people, guided and shaped by intellectual inquiry, and open to the full range of humanity.
In this vein, we can be grateful to Frank Alexander of the School of Law for accepting the invitation to chair a committee that will lead us in considering how we balance the sometimes-competing values of dissent, protest, and community. That committee has been widening the conversation to the campus.
We can be grateful also for the work of the Committee on Class and Labor, appointed last February by Earl Lewis and Mike Mandl to examine the dynamics of status and income as they affect our life and work together. Ably chaired by Nadine Kaslow of the School of Medicine and Vice President Gary Hauk, this committee too has worked hard and is continuing through the academic year before making its report and recommendations in the spring.
The work of these committees is a model for our forums of shared governance, and I encourage those forums to live more fully into their constitutions: for the University Senate to become the place where faculty concerns and ideas, staff concerns and ideas, as well as student concerns and ideas find both counsel and action; for the Student Government Association to be the arena where students as students, not as customers, define their expectations and hopes for their university; for the Employee Council to explore ways to better engage our employees to take advantage of the special benefits that come from working at a university and to provide an arena for voices to be heard that often are silent; for our Alumni Board to shape an agenda that vitally engages those who call Emory alma mater; and for our board of trustees to continue the hard work of growing and stewarding the resources and reputation of Emory.
It has been a difficult couple of years for many in our community, and we feel the effects of this time deeply, both in our emotions and in some sense in our intellectual and physical energy levels. Yet we still have so much to be grateful for. Our physical and financial resources are significant, as is our resolve to become ever more a community that is inquiry driven, ethically engaged, and deeply blessed with the gifts of diversity and the spirit of collaboration. For these reasons, we can say that the state of our community is good.
We should say this not as those reclining in the lap of luxury might say of their circumstances. Nor should we say it as a marathon runner or triathlete who gasps at mile twenty that she is doing fine, thanks, but likely will collapse soon after the finish line. Instead, we can say it as a traveler hiking with trusted and great companions, with firm footing, and though still far from the destination, enjoying the journey, confident that we are moving at a good pace and in the right direction.
James W. Wagner